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Rossini, Adrian Beecham and Tchaikovsky: Sadhbh Dennedy (soprano), Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra, James Blair, St John’s, Smith Square, London: 23.6.2010 (BBr)


Rossini: Overture: William Tell (1829)

Adrian Beecham: Six Spanish Songs (1952) – first performance of the orchestral version

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.6 in B minor, Pathetique, op.74 (1893)


I wonder why Rossini bothered to write an opera to follow the William Tell Overture, for it is a perfect piece of musical tone painting, and it makes a satisfying tone poem in its own right. Tonight we were given a splendid performance which vividly brought to life the four moods evoked in the music. From the opening outdoor scene with five solo cellos, to the storm, which was magnificent in its fury – trombones as wild as one could wish them to be – and the subsequent ran des vaches, with some glorious cor anglais playing from Mary Noden, was beautiful in its simplicity. There’s little one can say about the final galop which was as exciting and brilliant as possible. This made a terrific starter.


The prize of the evening was, undoubtedly, what was probably the world première of Adrian Beecham’s Spanish Songs, in the orchestral version. Written for Victoria de los Angeles, she gave the first performance with Gerald Moore in the Festival Hall. The words may be Spanish but, generally, the music is English through and through, in the first three songs, with more overt Spanish inflections in the last three, and there were many subtle quirks of harmony and rhythm. Sadhbh Dennedy was a fine soloist – and a name new to me – with a rich tone and an admirable understanding of the use of vibrato. The scoring was so translucent that she could always be heard and James Blair ensured that the orchestra supplied a firm bed for the vocal line. Most impressive was the third song with its accompaniment for solo cello, bass drum, cymbals, antique cymbals and little else; this was an exquisite piece of tone painting. What makes me think that this was a premiere is the fact that on a few occasions there was a slight muddiness in the writing in the bass register, and I feel that had Beecham been able to hear the work he might have made a few slight changes. But this didn’t spoil the work in any way, and the problem was mere moments in passing. We weren’t given texts or translations – even the separate song titles went untranslated - or even the names of the poets set, so I have no idea how the music matched the words, but they were evocative pieces and their discovery is to our advantage.

Tchaikovsky’s last Symphony brought out the best in the orchestra. Blair directed a performance which managed to stay well away from sentiment and showed the Symphony as a bold, and indeed, forward thrusting, work which, whilst it may contain intimations of the composer's own immortality, is looking forwards, to a new world, not, I feel, the afterlife. There was plenty of power and weight in the long first movement, and the famous second subject never languished, as it so often does, but appeared as an obvious continuation of the musical discussion. Perhaps the lopsided waltz of the second movement didn’t quite come off, because of a lack of spring in the rhythm, but this was more than made up for by the scintillating march scherzo; plenty of fireworks here, and some very exciting brass playing. The finale again stayed away from sentiment and a feeling of “oh poor me…” but, with a free use of rubato, Blair brought out the pathos of the music and achieved a sense of contentment, not resignation, at the end. A most enjoyable performance.


Bob Briggs

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